When The Matrix hit cinemas – more than 20 years ago now, if you can believe it – everyone would have agreed that Keanu Reeves was at the top of his game.
Since then, Keanu only seems to have climbed even higher, with hits like the John Wick series and a new Matrix film in the pipeline. Even better, the actor has stolen the hearts of millions with his down-to-earth personality and catalogue of cult classics. Now, he’s the star of a video game in Cyberpunk 2077.
With a truly unique life and a career spanning comedy to heavy drama to sci-fi, there’s no end of Keanu facts and mysteries to unlock. Here are 25 of the best.
25. He was born in Beirut, but grew up in Sydney, New York and Toronto
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to an English mother and American father, young Keanu’s experience was a nomadic one.
Sporadically spending time in Hawaii, where his father, Samuel, hails from, Keanu moved all around the world as a child, after his parents divorced in 1966.
A Canadian citizen, Keanu first lived for a year in Sydney as a baby, then later New York City when he was 6.
NYC was where Keanu’s mother, Patricia, met her second husband, Paul Aaron, but by the following year they were divorced and the family had moved again.
In 1971, Patricia finally settled the family in Toronto, where Keanu lived between the ages of 7 and 20.
24. His father was a drug addict who abandoned the family when Keanu was a child
Reeves’ father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, Jr., passed away in 2018 having been estranged from Keanu and his sisters for decades.
The way Keanu tells it, he knew Samuel “up until I was six. Then I saw him occasionally when I would go to Hawaii on holidays. The last time I saw him was when I was 13.”
Samuel’s struggle with drug addiction contributed enormously to his troubled relationship with his children.
Keanu told Penthouse in 2002 that his father disappeared from his life for 10 years – “neither the police nor hospitals were able to find Dad” – only for it later to emerge that Samuel had ended up in prison.
In 1992, Samuel was sentenced to 10 years in jail for selling heroin at Hawaii’s Hilo International Airport. He lived his later years with his mother.
23. He’s of English, Chinese, Native Hawaiian, Irish and Portuguese descent
Keanu Reeves, truly, is a man of the world, and not just because he grew up all over the place.
Singular among the typical WASP-y Hollywood star – think The Chrises – Keanu’s heritage actually spans three continents.
Keanu’s mother, Patricia Taylor, hails from England – Essex, to be exact – making Reeves actually entitled to British citizenship.
On his father’s side, however, Keanu’s heritage is much more diverse: Samuel was of Chinese, Hawaiian, English, Irish and Portuguese descent.
His name, though, is all Hawaiian: he says that “In Hawaii, Keanu is a cool breeze that comes from the mountains”.
22. He’s the highest paid actor of all time
These days, with stars like Robert Downey Jr regularly making up to $100 million a movie, it hardly seems to register when an actor makes utter bank.
However, back in 2003, when the two Matrix sequels were released to huge box office success, gargantuan pay checks weren’t so commonplace.
For those two films, two parts of one movie filmed back to back, Reeves was promised a $30 million salary plus 15% of the profits.
After Reloaded made $742 million and Revolutions made $427 million, Reeves’ one-off fee altogether came to $156 million.
This is the biggest single payday for any actor in the history of film. Whether Robert Downey Jr will top it for Avengers 3 and 4 remains to be seen.
21. He has given up his salary before to pay cast and crew
“Money is the last thing I think about. I could live on what I have already made for the next few centuries.”
So said Keanu in a 2003 interview with Hello magazine, setting us up nicely for a brief examination of all the times Keanu has given money away to cast and crew on his movies over the years.
On both The Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements, Reeves asked to take a pay cut so that producers could bring, respectively, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman on board. (Hackman actually cost Reeves 90% of his salary).
It was on the Matrix films that Reeves’ generosity really shone through, however: not only did Reeves gift all 12 members of his stunt team a Harley-Davidson motorcycle when filming wrapped on the sequels, he gave up some of his own salary to pay the series’ effects team.
According to an ABC News report from the time, Reeves gave up some of his “profit-sharing points to the franchise’s special-effects and costume-design team” on Reloaded and Revolutions.
20. He was expelled from school at 16 and never got his high school diploma
Reeves might look back and laugh at the experience now, but as a teen his academic life was likely no laughing matter.
Describing his itinerant family life to the Daily Mail in 2011, Reeves explained he “went to four different high schools in five years”.
One of these, Etobicoke School of the Arts, actually expelled Reeves when he was 16.
In a 1988 interview, Reeves explained the reason was that he was “just a little too rambunctious… I was not generally the most well-oiled machine in the school”.
Poor at maths and science, Reeves also later told Handbag magazine he had “trouble reading”. He rebelled, and left high school without his diploma.
19. He could have been a professional hockey player
Keanu Reeves: Movie Star could have been Keanu Reeves: Professional Hockey Player, before acting got in the way.
Back in school, Reeves excelled at hockey, becoming such an effective goalie that he earned the nickname ‘The Wall’.
In 2014, Jason Kay, who played alongside Reeves as a teen, wrote: “Keanu had a gift. I’d seen him play a handful of games at a competitive level, and despite him not having much formal training, he stood out.”
Reeves dreamed of playing hockey for Canada at the Olympics, and was at one point offered a “free agent tryout” with an Ontario Hockey League team, but he declined.
Around the time he was scouted, Keanu discovered acting, and turned his back on hockey to instead pursue a Hollywood career.
18. He suffered unspeakable tragedy the year The Matrix was released
1999, the year of The Matrix, was probably both the best and worst year of Keanu Reeves’ life.
While the first half of the year saw Reeves star in the biggest movie of his career, the second half brought unspeakably tragedy.
On December 24, Reeves’ then-girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to Reeves’ baby, Ava Archer Syme-Reeves. Unfortunately, Ava was born stillborn.
Both devastated by the stillbirth, Reeves and Syme separated just weeks later, while Syme subsequently struggled with depression.
In 2001, Syme – on her way back to a party in LA – crashed her car and was killed instantly. Reeves has never made another attempt to start a family.
17. He almost changed his acting name to Chuck Spidina
Keanu Reeves is now such an iconic and famous name, you can drop the ‘Reeves’ entirely and everyone still knows who you’re talking about.
It seems unbelievable, then, that the actor once seriously considered changing it around the time he was trying to break through.
When Reeves was first going up for auditions, his name was considered to be problematic (“it had an ethnicity to it that [my agents] found was getting in the way”).
To solve the problem, for a little while Reeves attended auditions going by the more generic KC Reeves.
This wasn’t Reeves’ first choice. In 1995, he told US magazine that he initially “came up with names like Page Templeton III” and “Chuck Spidina”.
16. There’s a website dedicated to the theory that he’s immortal
Keanu Reeves, 54, has been in the film industry for over three decades now, and people are starting to notice: the man has barely aged at all.
Reeves is so youthful, in fact, that an entire website exists that’s dedicated to the theory that Reeves is actually an immortal.
Over at keanuisimmortal.com, you can find side-by-side photos of Keanu remaining suspiciously unchanged through the ages.
There are also pictures and paintings of people from history who bear a suspicious likeness to the actor.
Among Keanu’s apparent ancestors are King Charlemagne and Paul Mounet, a 19th century doctor turned actor.
15. Five huge actors were offered the role of Neo before Keanu
Keanu Reeves is such a perfect fit as the Christ-like Neo, in retrospect it seems nuts that anybody else was ever even offered the role. Still, it happened.
Up first was Will Smith, then the biggest movie star on the planet – but he passed, later telling Wired: “At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be”.
The Wachowskis also looked at Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer and Nicolas Cage, all of whom also turned the film down.
The Wachowskis’ ultimate top pick for the role, however, was Johnny Depp, who was then coming off Donnie Brasco and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately for Depp, when the then-more bankable Keanu Reeves became interested in playing Neo, the studio forced Depp out and made the role Reeves’.
14. He dropped 15 pounds and shaved his entire body for just one scene in The Matrix
Once Keanu was on board The Matrix, the actor went to extreme lengths to make sure he could do the material justice.
We’ll get to the epic fight training in a moment. Let’s focus for now on how Keanu actually changed his entire look for the sake of just one short scene in the film.
For the scene in which Neo wakes up from the Matrix in the pod, the script required the actor to emerge looking like a newborn.
Rather than go down the makeup and prosthetics route, Reeves decided to emulate the look for real. And so, he shaved his entire body clean and dropped 15 pounds to give Neo an emaciated look.
Happily for Reeves, the scene was shot quickly right at the end of production, so he didn’t have to keep the look for long.
13. He trained for 10 hours a day for 4 straight months for The Matrix’s fight scenes
Early on in pre-production for The Matrix, the Wachowskis made an executive decision: their actors would perform the action sequences normally taken on by stunt doubles.
Considering the sheer amount of action in the film, fight training, then, was going to be a priority.
Hiring legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, the Wachowskis brought their actors in for what would be a gruelling preparation period.
At first expected to take just a few weeks, the cast would in total train for four months straight in order to look convincing in their fight scenes.
Keanu Reeves for one would train for up to ten hours each day during the four-month period.
12. He was still recovering from partial paralysis when he signed up to star in The Matrix
You may notice in The Matrix that Neo performs fewer kicks than the other characters and, well, we’re here to tell you this wasn’t through choice.
When Reeves signed up to star in The Matrix, he was still recovering from surgery to correct a two-level fusion of his cervical spine.
The injury was so serious it had begun to cause partial paralysis in Reeves’ legs, requiring Reeves undergo neck surgery prior to filming.
Reeves was still in recovery during The Matrix’s pre-production fight training, meaning he had to wear a neck brace and practice less strenuous moves for half of the four month period.
Which is why Neo rarely performs kicks in the film: Reeves literally didn’t have enough time to train for those scenes because he was still getting over being partially paralysed.
11. John Wick was written to be played by an actor in his mid-60s
After a few years spent in the wilderness, Reeves has finally found another blockbuster franchise on his hands.
Still, though Reeves might seem to fit the role of super-assassin John Wick like a glove, he wasn’t always an obvious fit.
Before Keanu found the script and landed the part, Wick was imagined as a much older man.
The film’s screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, admitted in 2014 that “the script was written with a man in his mid-sixties in mind”.
Kolstad was actually thinking of a specific older actor: Paul Newman, the Cool Hand Luke actor who died in 2008.
10. Alice Cooper was a regular guest at Reeves’ house when Keanu was a child
Before he became the highest paid actor on Earth, Reeves had a fairly modest, working-class upbringing in Toronto.
With Reeves’ mother a costume designer for some of the biggest names in showbiz, however, young Keanu had some early brushes with fame.
In 2002, Reeves revealed to Penthouse that, as a teen, his mother “began designing stage costumes for Dolly Parton and rockers like David Bowie and Alice Cooper”.
The result was the small Reeves family household “turned into a pass through house for glam rockers”, including notorious prankster Cooper.
“Alice Cooper was always ready for some kind of joke” Reeves told Penhouse, “fake puke or dog s**t was strategically placed on the sofa to drive our cleaning lady crazy. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”
9. He may have accidentally married Winona Ryder in 1991
As 80s/90s stars of a similar age, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have always had a connection.
The pair admitted as much on the press tour for their latest movie together, the rom-com Destination Wedding, their first team-up since 1992’s Francis Ford Coppola horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It was on the set of that movie that Reeves and Ryder first became friends, and perhaps even man and wife.
For one scene in Dracula, in which Reeves and Ryder’s characters wed, the two were recorded by Coppola reciting wedding vows in full at a staged ceremony officiated by a priest played by an actual priest.
As a result, both Coppola and Ryder now believe Keanu and Winona to be actually, officially married – something that Ryder won’t let Reeves forget.
“Once in a while, I will get a text, ‘Hello, husband'”, Reeves recently said of Ryder. “I didn’t really believe her, and then Francis Ford Coppola…said publicly that, yeah, that really happened, the priest did a full ceremony, and Winona and I got married.”
8. Saying no to Speed 2 landed him in ‘movie jail’ for a decade
The 1994 film Speed, starring Keanu as an LA cop trapped on a bus that wouldn’t slow down (we forget the rest), is a classic 90s action movie.
1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control, starring someone who isn’t Keanu trapped on a cruise ship that won’t slow down, is considered one of the worst movie sequels of all time.
You’d think that Reeves was lucky not to star in that one, then. Or rather, he might have felt that way if his decision to turn the role down – he thought the script was bad – hadn’t made him a pariah in Hollywood.
In a recent interview with GQ, Reeves revealed he was, after Speed 2, put in ‘movie jail’ by Speed studio Fox, who blacklisted him for over a decade.
The studio wouldn’t work with Reeves again until The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008, by which time there had been a change in stewardship at Fox.
7. Someone once forced him into making a film by forging his signature
As Hollywood goes, Keanu Reeves is one of the apparently rare good guys – a reputation that some have occasionally taken advantage of.
In 2000, Reeves took a supporting role in a thriller called The Watcher, though curiously the actor refused to do any promotional work for the film.
It was only 12 months later, when he was legally allowed to speak out, that Reeves admitted he had been duped into starring in the film.
Reeves insisted that he never signed up to The Watcher, but that an assistant had forged his signature on the contract. Rather than submit himself to a lengthy legal battle, though, Good Guy Keanu simply made the film and moved on.
“I couldn’t prove [the signature was forged] and I didn’t want to get sued, so I had no other choice but to do the film,” Reeves later told the press.
6. He once gave $20,000 to a set builder who was having personal troubles
Tales of Keanu Reeves’ generosity and all-round good-guyness are manifold. There’s that one story about the time he drove a stranger 50 miles home after he found her broken down on the California highway.
There’s the story about the time the paparazzi caught Keanu lunching with a homeless man who was down and out in LA.
Or the time he gave up his subway seat for no reason other than someone else could be using it.
There’s one Generous Keanu story from the set of The Matrix that arguably has them all beat, however, the Harley-Davidson giveaway to the stunt team included.
We’ll let redditor kahi tell it: “A family friend builds movie sets, doesn’t design, is one of the poor dudes that just builds. Anyways he worked on the set for the Matrix and Keanu heard about family trouble he was having and gave him a $20,000 Christmas bonus to help him out.”
So there we have it: not just a dedicated action star and immortal, Keanu Reeves might be the greatest philanthropist acting has ever known. Excellent!
5. He almost played a Batman villain
Thinking about it, Reeves would make a brilliant, if slightly strange, Batman. He already has the husky voice. But director Joel Schumacher – infamous to Batman fans far and wide – had something else in mind.
Had Schumacher not been fired after the abysmal reception of Batman and Robin (1997), his next film might have included Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Crane, better known as the Scarecrow.
Unlike the choice of Arnold Schwarzenegger for tortured scientist Mr Freeze, Reeves as the Scarecrow seems like an inspired choice. On the whole, though, it’s probably best that the film was never made.
4. He’s a leftie
Given his other quirks, it’s almost not surprising that Reeves is left-handed, but you wouldn’t know by watching him on screen.
In the John Wick film series, Reeves shoots with his right hand, and generally seems to favour it throughout. On the other hand is the Matrix, in which Keanu signs for a package with his left hand, but then opens the package and holds his phone in his right hand.
Either it’s a deliberate choice to show Neo’s fluid reality, or Reeves just couldn’t convincingly write with anything other than his dominant hand. Some things will forever remain a mystery.
3. He auditioned to play Bill
Reeves ended up auditioning for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure alongside Alex Winter, his future co-star.
In the audition, Reeves played the part of Bill S Preston Esq, and Winter played Ted Logan.
In fact, producers had decided early in the process that Reeves would play Ted, and ended up auditioning 24 actors with him in order to find the right chemistry. Reeves and Winter connected over a shared love of bass guitars and motorcycles.
2. He had an intense relationship with River Phoenix
My Own Private Idaho (1991) was one of Reeves’ first major dramatic roles, and saw him in a lead pairing with River Phoenix, who was the same age.
The two were already good friends, and in fact it was Reeves who convinced Phoenix to take the part in spite of its small budget.
It was during production that Phoenix first developed the drug addiction issues that would ultimately bring about his early death at 23 years of age. Reeves has spoken candidly about grief, but rarely about how he deals with the death of Phoenix in particular, one of his closest friends.
1. He believes he might one day catch on fire
Millions think Keanu is hot, but not quite as hot as an issue that Reeves takes very seriously.
Reeves believes that randomly setting on fire is possible, saying: “What would happen if you melted? You know, you never really hear this talked about much, but spontaneous combustion? It exists!… [people] burn from within… sometimes they’ll be in a wooden chair and the chair won’t burn, but there’ll be nothing left of the person. Except sometimes his teeth. Or the heart. No one speaks about this, but it’s for real.”
Everyone has their irrational fears, though this one does seem a little out of the ordinary. Let’s just be thankful that Keanu was never cast in The Wicker Man.